I am so confused about all the different options for connecting to
the internet – broadband, wireless, dial-up. Can you please explain how
each works and what the differences are among them.
It’s even worse than you list; broadband, wireless and dial-up only
scratch the surface. Each can breakdown into additional variations, and
there are a couple of options you haven’t listed.
I’ll see if I can clarify some of it for you.
One thing I’ll clarify at the beginning: “broadband” is a somewhat fuzzy term. In common use, it refers to an internet connection that’s “faster than dial-up”, and always on, regardless of the technologies used. So you’ll see DSL, Cable, and even some types of wireless connections referred to as broadband.
With that out of the way, and in rough order of speed:
Dial-up is by now almost ancient technology, but for many it still remains the only option. Dial-up uses your phone to establish an internet connection. Quite literally, dial-up uses sound transmitted over your voice phone line to encode the data traveling between your computer and whatever it’s connected to.
Cons: dial-up is probably the slowest connection option commonly available today. Maximum speeds can reach 56kbps (56 thousand bits per second), but in reality, speeds are more commonly 22kbps or 36kbps due to being affected by any audible noise on the phone lines.
Cellular is a wireless technology that’s almost as ubiquitous these days as dial-up, since it uses the existing cellular telephone networks. Speeds range from typical dial-up speeds to 1 mbps (1 million bits per second), depending on the provider and technology used.
Pros: available anywhere there is cellular coverage. Portable, perhaps perfect for traveling. There are typically several providers to choose from.
Cons: additional monthly data plan usually required. Speeds are often not as fast as advertised (though still faster than dial-up). Additional hardware in the form of a cellular adapter often required, or additional technology to “tether” an actual cell phone to be used as the cellular modem.
WiFi wireless as a connection option is actually a misnomer. WiFi is not a service you can just sign up for to get internet just anywhere. WiFi is more typically a technology you add to your existing internet connection so that you can have wireless internet connectivity within your home or business.
That being said, you can do things like visit internet cafes and other WiFi hotspots, and as long as you’re in range and follow the provider’s rules, you could use that to connect to the internet. Technically, WiFi speeds can reach up to 54mbps, though besides that being an ideal that’s rarely reached, the true limiting factor is how the hotspot provider is connected to the internet. Typically, they’ll have done so with one of the other broadband options discussed here, and that along with the fact you’re sharing the connection with all other users of that hotspot, will be the limiting factors.
Pros: often free, reasonably fast if the hotspot it not overloaded.
Cons: often not fast as the hotspot is overloaded. Security is a significant issue and must be carefully considered as you are sharing a connection with other users you don’t know. Using a random WiFi signal you might find without permission could be illegal.
Satellite delivers the internet to your home via a satellite dish. Speeds can actually range quite high – 1 to 40 mbps, or so I’ve heard. In practice, the satellite bandwidth is shared with other consumers, and usage is often capped. It’s not unheard of to hear some satellite users complain of speeds as low as dialup. Others are quite happy, which leads to an interesting issue: particularly because of the time it takes to send a signal to a satellite and back, how a satellite internet connection performs is highly dependant on exactly how you use it. Some types of applications and operations work fine, others not as well. Some satellite services actually require a phone line, such that only downloads arrive over the dish, and any uploads or outgoing transmissions still happen via phone.
Pros: available anywhere you can point a dish at a provider’s satellite. Often faster than dial-up.
Cons: experience is highly dependant on how the internet is used, as well as environmental factors such as weather that might interrupt the satellite signal.
DSL/ADSL uses your existing phone line, but does so without requiring or interfering with the actual phone. [Asymmetric] Digital Subscriber Line uses technology to place the digital signals outside of the audible range. ADSL speeds range from 256kbps to over 20mbps, and is always on. Typical speeds are in the 1-6 mbps range. (Asymmetrical refers to the fact that while download speeds are in that range, the technology is such that upload speeds are often much slower.)
Pros: always on and fast. While your DSL service travels over your phone lines, in many places your ISP does not have to be your phone company. It travels over your existing phone line.
Cons: requires support from your phone company, and you must be within a certain distance from the telephone switching equipment or the speeds available might be significantly reduced, or completely unavailable.
Cable Internet is a connection that, as its name implies, is provided over your television cable – again without interfering with the cable’s other uses. Speeds can be as much as 50mbps, but more typically 2 to 20, with caveats listed below.
Pros: always on and usually fast. It travels over your existing cable TV connection.
Cons: must be purchased from your cable TV provider. Your actual speed may impacted by other cable internet users near you, and “evening slowdowns” in some neighborhoods are not unheard of.
Fiber optic connectivity is commonly used for all high speed connections between ISPs and whatever you might consider the “backbone” of the internet. Speeds of 1gbps (1 billion bits per second) or higher are common in these applications.
Fiber to the home, currently exemplified by Verizon’s FiOS uses the same technology to deliver broadband speeds typically much faster than either DSL or Cable, ranging from 10 to 50 mbps.
Pros: always on and fast – perhaps the fastest consumer-grade internet connection available in the U.S. right now.
Cons: available only from one vendor, and even then not in all locations. Requires new fiber optic cabling, at least to the street and possibly all the way to your home. Since it’s new technology, it’s having occasional issues.
Other, less commonly available or older technologies include:
ISDN – Integrated Services Digital Network is an older phone-based technology that converts the audio line into a high quality digital audio. Typically limited to 64kbps or 128kbps.
T1 – A dedicated always on circuit. Carried on the phone companies wires, T1’s operate at 1.544 mbps bi-directionally. They’ve been around forever (much voice communication is actually carried over T1s once they reach the telephone switching office), and are also typically fairly costly.
WiMax – This is wide area wireless service that appears to be having some troubles getting started. With a cellular-like network and ranges measured in miles, the promise is more like what people expect out of wireless: the ability to just pick it up out of the air.